’23 and Me

By Peter Gilstrap

The Class of 2023 has a little bit of everything going for it—and brightness is definitely in its DNA

Politics and activism are equal passions for Addie Alexander, who grew up in the hotbed of both: Washington, D.C. Her interest in social justice began only a few miles from the White House, as a student at Woodrow Wilson High School (whose mascot is also a Tiger). “We had a huge segregation issue, to the point where black kids were using one side of the stairs and white kids were using the other,” Addie recalls. She joined a club called Common Ground, which was created “to forge a bond between different ethnicities, races, and genders.” The group wanted to address the social justice issues “that we saw in our city, but also in our country,” says Addie, who became co-president of the group.

“So as a leader I led events to get the whole community to come together to really try to eradicate the segregation that we saw at our school. But it was also to give students a platform to speak out on social justice issues.”

And it wasn’t just talk. One week after the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, Common Ground organized a citywide walkout of all D.C. public, private, and charter schools, drawing 5,000 participants. “We had a huge march from the White House to the Capitol,” Addie says, culminating at the Washington Monument.

In her junior year, Addie also was part of a nonprofit program called Operation Understanding DC, a yearlong program that brings together 12 Jewish students and 12 black students from the District. “We talked about each other’s cultures and histories, and then over the summer we went on an 18-day trip following the trail of the Freedom Riders through the South,” she explains.

But Addie spent time on a stage that had nothing to do with speeches. She acted in the musicals Hair, Urinetown, and Legally Blonde, and directed the plays Almost, Maine and 12 Angry Jurors. Singing is a passion for her, and she’s been selected as a member of Oxy’s treble a cappella ensemble, the Accidentals.

“One of the big misconceptions about D.C. is that it’s solely politics, but it has a lot of culture that’s very unique to the city that I think is often overlooked,” Addie notes. “Growing up there I was very aware about what was going in our government, but I was also surrounded by a really big group of different cultures that all came together.”

Addie wound up nearly 2,700 miles from home in large part thanks to her mother, a former college counselor. “I knew I wanted a smaller liberal arts college, and that I didn’t want to be in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “My mom was making a checklist and she said, ‘I think Occidental checks off a lot of these boxes.’

“A lot of the East Coast liberal arts schools are in the middle of nowhere,” she adds. “I really do love it here.”

Adrian Manhey is quite likely one of the few members of the Class of ’23 who has built a robot—at least a robot named Daisy. “We built a robot that kind of looked like a box on wheels,” says Adrian, who was part of the robotics program at Benjamin Franklin High School in his community of Oxy-adjacent Highland Park. “And Daisy ended up looking like a box frame that was made out of metal with a couple of wheels. She didn’t have a face. It’s not as high-tech as you might think, but actually building it was kind of difficult.”

Adrian took his building skills beyond robots at Franklin High. “I was part of this architecture, construction, and engineering program that they had,” he says. “We would build designs for buildings, like food courts or apartment buildings and things like that.”

Deep-dive pursuits in learning, no doubt, but nothing compared to the Academic Decathlons during his junior and senior years. “They were the most rigorous experiences I’ve had in my academic career,” says Adrian, whose Franklin team won its first-ever citywide competition over 54 competing LAUSD teams last February. “It was more studying than I’d ever done in my life. But you end up having a lot of fun studying with your teammates.”

Growing up mere blocks away, Adrian was aware of Occidental, but when it came time to make a choice for life after high school, the College became a new home away from home. “I was lucky enough to find out that Franklin was part of the Oxy Centennial Scholarship,” he says of the program, which offers full tuition and board for one incoming student from each of four local high schools. “Oxy is its own space and it’s very enclosed. But once you walk a couple blocks, it’s the place where I grew up in. So I ended up being in an area I knew at a place that I really liked.”

Although Mia Steinhaus-Shinkman was raised in nearby Sherman Oaks, she was adopted from an orphanage in China at 13 months. “I grew up in a Jewish household where we celebrated the holidays. We did Shabbat, we did a lot of different Jewish cooking and everything,” she says. “But I think my family views Judaism as more of a culture than as a religious practice.”

At North Hollywood High School, Mia kept busy beyond just academics. She co-founded the UNICEF club, “and I was in our school’s business club, and our Make-A-Wish club, and our American Cancer Society club. And then I was part of our Jewish Student Union, which discussed different holidays and events in the history of Judaism.”

Mia’s mother suggested attending Occidental, and the fit was good. “It seemed that such a small school would foster the same kind of inclusive community that I had in my high school,” says Mia, who’s interested in cognitive science and economics. “I really liked its focus on social justice and the atmosphere of the campus.”

She’s looking forward to exploring her new surroundings with camera in hand. “I first started taking pictures with my dad—he taught me how to use a camera,” she says. “It’s a way of connecting to others by showing them your perspective and what’s important to you.”

Edin Custo was born and raised in the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “It was really divided because there are two ethnic groups there, Croatians and Bosnians, and a conflict between them has been going on for a long time,” he says. “The war has been over for almost 20 years, but the tensions can still be felt.”

Edin grew up attending public schools, but a defining moment came when, as a junior in high school, he was accepted to the United World College in Mostar, which was founded in 2006 by the nonprofit Education in Action Foundation.

“UWC is a global educational movement that makes education a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future, and to help heal and mend communities that have been in conflict,” explains Edin, who shared a classroom with students from over 80 countries in a student body of 200. The college “opened so many doors for me,” he adds.

After UWC, Edin spent a gap year in Senegal in a U.S.-based program called Global Citizen Year. “It’s not a ‘white savior’ program,” he says. “We didn’t go there to show them our way of the world. It was the other way around. I went there to learn about the cultural context of Islam. Senegal is a Muslim majority country, and I’m a Muslim myself. It was an amazing experience.”

A self-described introvert, Edin turns to academics to “navigate the social dynamics” in his life. But at some point, everybody has to chill out. For him, that means doing mathematics. “Math is something that relaxes me, when I’m able to use theorems and employ logic to solve problems, which is completely opposite to real-world problems,” he says. “You can’t approach all of them logically because they involve people, and math problems don’t.”

It’s no shock that his focus at Oxy—which Edin learned about from a friend in Senegal—is leaning toward math. But he’s also interested in exploring biochemistry and neuroscience. “I’m fascinated by the human brain. There’s a series of nerves and neurons—100 billion of them—that are compressed in such a small area of space and made to function so sustainably. And we witness every day when individuals, thanks to their cognition, are able to produce and build and achieve. And I’m just fascinated with that.”

“I always saw America as this kind of wondrous place with a world of opportunities,” says Bia Pinho, who left her hometown of Curitiba, capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, to begin her junior year in high school in Miami. While that has ultimately proved to be true, it also has come with a few frustrations—and one huge misunderstanding. Because school officials misinterpreted her transcripts, she says, “They thought I was in 10th grade instead of 11th.”

The only thing Bia knew about American high schools was the International Baccalaureate program, which is designed for young students to develop intercultural understanding and peaceful coexistence. Although Bia’s Miami counselors told her it was “way too late” for her to join the IB, she pursued the issue, ultimately landing four AP classes. As a result of the experience, she co-founded the Hi-Guides, a student group to rescue others from such pitfalls. “We decided it would really help inform students of what they’re coming into and all the opportunities that were at my high school, which was very big and confusing.”

While dealing with all of this, Bia managed to care for her two younger siblings. “It was tough,” she admits. “My parents are divorced and I lived with my dad. By senior year I had a larger academic workload, and I took over cooking and cleaning and helping my brothers with homework.”

Bia, who is interested in studying economics and music, became aware of Oxy through a school counselor. “I didn’t even know what a liberal arts education was but, after she told me about it, I realized it’s exactly what I needed.”

Despite the hurdles, it’s paying off. “My first day here, I was really scared, but the campus is so small I can walk anywhere and find at least five people that I know. One of the main reasons I moved to Miami was to go to college in America, and to live this dream is more exciting than all the intimidation and all the crazy, scary aspects of it.”

Growing up multiracial presented a challenge for Delphi Drake-Mudede. “My dad’s from Zimbabwe and my mom is a white American,” says the Seattle native. “I didn’t really understand my own identity.” As a high school sophomore, she joined the multiracial student union, taking a leadership position. “It was a way of taking control over my own identity, and hopefully helping other people, too.”

Delphi, who identifies as a person of color, attended Garfield High School in the central district of Seattle. “It was a historically black school, but it’s growing more and more white,” she says. She worked on the school paper for three years, and the power of the press became another means for her to express herself.

Holding down the arts and entertainment editor slot, “I edited and produced an entire issue with just black student voices and artists and poets and photographers,” she says. The issue featured a spread on gentrification “to highlight the injustice with the people in the neighborhood who had been here for decades, and we had a story about black excellence to highlight students at the school who were committed to good.”

Reporting is in her blood. Her father, Charles Mudede, is associate editor at longtime Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. Spending time in the newsroom, Delphi learned about Oxy through Charles’ colleague, writer and activist Lindy West ’04. “She’s an idol and inspiration for me,” says Delphi of West, who wrote her a letter of recommendation. “I’ve enjoyed having her as a mentor.”

Delphi is considering a major in diplomacy and world affairs, sparked in part by her experience in Washington, D.C., learning about civil liberties in a program run by the Close Up Foundation and the ACLU. “We lobbied on Capitol Hill for the rights of immigrants. All of the students got to talk to their own state senators about our concerns with the immigrant detention center and family separations.” Her experience on the Hill was formative in at least one way she didn’t expect, she says: “What I really took away was the ability of young people to rally around a common goal and just be so angry together.”

Luke Williams picked up his first tennis racket when he was 4 years old. He was captain of the tennis team at Canyon Crest Academy, a public high school in San Diego. ranking among the top 400 players in his grade nationally as a senior.

Although tennis season is still a few months away, he’s already notched his first singles win as a Tiger in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s fall tournament in October. “I was really interested in playing tennis, and I wanted to go to a small liberal arts college on the West Coast that had awesome academics, so that already limits you to a few schools,” he says. “I really liked the tennis team here, and Coach David Bojalad ’94 is great.”

Luke’s competitive nature spills over into his other unlikely passion: bridge, an intricate card game that the San Diego native is well familiar with.

“I got into it because of my mom,” says Luke. “She got sick with a disease called scleroderma, so she had to get a stem-cell transplant back in 2008.” During her recovery, he and his older brother, Jake, lived with their grandparents. “Since there were four of us”—the optimal number for bridge—“they taught us how to play,” he says.

Luckily, his mother recovered, and the benefit for Luke was the introduction to a game he fell in love with, so much so that he’s been a nationally ranked tournament player with the United States Bridge Federation ever since.

Luke has found that his abilities in bridge and tennis complement one another. “There’s definitely a mental overlap in that you have to stay calm, and you have to stay focused. I think that I’ve been a lot better at being focused in tennis because of bridge.” Now he just needs to get a game going in Braun.

Though it might seem like a contradiction in terms to say that a cheerleading captain suffered from social anxiety, that issue was the catalyst for Kenya Sterns to join the cheer squad at Cesar Chavez High School in Phoenix.

“Growing up, it was very hard for me to be outgoing because I was always the youngest kid in the room,” says Kenya, who comes from a family of five children (four girls, one boy). “Every time I opened up my mouth, it was always like, ‘Well, you don’t really know what you’re talking about.’

“I joined cheer as a way to become more outgoing and confident. It eventually worked,” continues Kenya, who worked her way up to cheerleading captain. “It branched out to all other parts in my life, in class and in my academics, and it also led me to become leader of multiple clubs.”

In case you’re wondering where her first name comes from, so is Kenya. “My aunt picked my name but I don’t know why she picked Kenya,” she says. “My middle name is Capri, which is an island off the coast of Italy. And so I always joke that my mom and aunt closed their eyes and pointed on the map and that was my first and middle name!”

Geography also played a part in her decision to come to Occidental. “At my high school, college wasn’t really pushed very much,” she says. “I did most of my own research regarding colleges out of state. I knew I wanted to go to California, and since Occidental is in Los Angeles, I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds cool.’ And when I found that Obama went there I thought I might as well apply.”

If all goes as planned, she sees her future going in the same direction as did “Barry” Obama ’83. “I don’t see myself majoring in anything but politics,” says Kenya. She’s interested in participating in Campaign Semester, the biennial program that offers students academic credit volunteering in a presidential, Senate, House, or gubernatorial campaign over a 10-week period. “It was something that drew me to Oxy as well, because none of the schools I was looking at had anything like it.”

And for someone who once battled social anxiety, Kenya feels Occidental is a warm place to be. “I visited another small school and it just didn’t have the same sense of community,” she says. “There weren’t really people going out, being active. Everyone stayed in all the time. Oxy is like a constant, jostling community. We’re not sedentary here—we’re always doing things.”

The key to Adrian Aviles’ potential future began on his skateboard. Cruising around Los Angeles on his beloved deck allowed him to get an intimate look at his hometown, particularly some of its problems. “It was really eye-opening to bigger issues—homelessness for sure,” he says. “You’re able to see how they’ve set up their own communities and how isolated they’ve become from the rest of society. And I saw the bigger picture of gentrification happening in neighborhoods that were close to mine. That’s what encouraged me to want to do something about it and be in urban and environmental planning, which is the reason I came here.”

Adrian grew up in East L.A., where “it was very comfortable because it’s a predominantly Hispanic community. There was a lot of cultural comfort, being around people similar to you.”

Though 38 percent of the Class of ’23 are from California, Adrian has met plenty of fellow freshmen to whom the Golden State is a brave new world. “It’s funny to me because I’m getting all these outside perspectives of Los Angeles,” he says. “I’ve lived here my whole life and people are always amazed by it, but I can see why. It’s a beautiful city, despite the problems it has.”

Along with his older brother, Adrian is a first-generation college student. “Since I was young, my mom would talk to me about how I had to do good in school so I could get an education one day. Both of my parents came from Mexico, so they didn’t have the same opportunities to study.”

His opportunity came thanks to Oxy’s Centennial Scholars program, which provides tuition, room, and board to high-achieving students from area high schools. “I think it’s great,” says Adrian, a graduate of Franklin High School. “I’m very at peace here. I don’t think there’s anybody that I’ve met so far that isn’t always smiling.”

For Joaquin Madrid Larrañaga, coming to Oxy was on the table for a long time. Literally. His father, Juan Fidel Larrañaga ’95, made sure of that. “He was definitely pushing for it,” admits Joaquin. “He would drop little hints and Occidental merchandise would show up in my room every once in a while.”

To say that Joaquin has done well in school so far is a breathtaking understatement. He had a spotless record of straight A’s throughout his secondary education. He completed 14 AP classes and his GPA of 4.9 won him the sole valedictorian slot at Albuquerque (N.M.) High School.

So, what’s his secret? Ceaseless studying? Natural brilliance? Unparalleled nerd powers? “I would say a little bit of everything,” admits Joaquin. “I worked really hard and I know when to ask for help. I make sure that hard work comes first before everything else.”

“Everything else” throws a wide net in his case. He’s played guitar since first grade, piano since fourth, percussion since sixth. “I was in the marching band all four years, and sophomore year I was promoted to percussion section leader,” Joaquin says. “In my senior year I was a band captain, which is a large leadership position that I was able to help with.” Already at Oxy, he’s a percussionist with the Occidental orchestra and the chamber ensemble.

During high school, Joaquin was active in science fairs, creating projects based on computer science. “In my freshman year I created a computer program to show how preventative measures could be effective in stopping the spread of Ebola,” offers Joaquin. “My sophomore year I did a project about self-driving cars. Then in my junior and senior years I really focused on theoretical computing.”

In the wake of the Parkland High School shooting, Joaquin lobbied his school for increased safety measures. “I didn’t want something to happen,” he says, “and then in hindsight say, ‘This horrible thing happened, let’s fix it.’ We need to take preventative measures in order to make sure that it doesn’t happen in the first place.”

At Occidental, Joaquin plans to major in computer science, or possibly education. His only problem is time. Too much of it. “All through high school I was doing so many things that I didn’t have time to do a lot. Now that I’m in college, I do my schoolwork, and then I’m involved in a variety of activities, but then I still have a lot of downtime. I’m trying to figure out how to be productive in that. Downtime is the biggest challenge for me, to make sure that I’m not wasting it.”

Based on first impressions, that seems doubtful.

Elili Brown has done her fair share of globetrotting, from her native New York to England to Colorado to Los Angeles and Occidental. It’s all been a learning experience, but not necessarily an easy one. “When I lived in England, I never really thought about being biracial and what that meant,” says Elili, whose mother is from Sri Lanka and father is European. “But Colorado is much more predominantly white. And so I eventually started thinking about being biracial and what that meant.”

She arrived in Colorado at age 9 with an English accent and no idea where the city of Boulder was. Within a year she’d lost the accent and discovered a lot about her new home. “Boulder sees itself as such a liberal place that people are often implicitly racist, so they don’t realize it,” she says. “It was a big adjustment to realize that you don’t look the same as everyone else and have people comment on that. But my high school experience was good. It was the same size as Oxy, and I realized how much I liked a small school where teachers can get to know students.”

Elili says her experience as a biracial person drew her to issues of social injustice, something she says will be a focus of her Oxy studies. “Growing up, seeing the differences between being with my mom and being with my dad has made me very alert to the differences in how people treat people. It’s all based off of this protein expression.”

Because Sri Lanka is very hot, Elili explains, “You need more protection against the sun so your body produces more melanin. Racism is essentially based off of melanin production, how much melanin is in someone’s skin, which annoys me. It’s such a minor difference yet it affects so much of our lives. And so that makes me want to do something to change that.”

Gilstrap wrote "Be Like Mike" in the Summer issue. Photos by Marc Campos.